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'Johns' in San Francisco sit down for a class on the sex trade

George Nikitin
AP Images
Norma Hotaling, health educator, former prostitute and executive director of the SAGE Project, teaches a John School class in 1997.

The First Offender Prostitution Program is like traffic school, except the goal is to educate people who have been arrested for soliciting prostitutes.

About thirty men and one woman sit in an empty jury room in San Francisco’s Hall of Justice. The First Offender Prostitution Program, also known as John School, is in session. A nurse named Douglas Long is about to give these students a lesson they probably haven’t heard since high school sex ed.

Every person you’re with, every person that person was with, or every infection that person had, you could be exposed to it. You see where I’m going with this?” Long asks his students.

Long has a slide show presentation on the ready and it’s about to get visual. There is a photo of herpes. There is chlamydia. There is gonorrhea.

“It’s a dangerous world,” Long says. “There’s this idea that you can walk down the street, and see somebody and say, ‘Oh yeah, she’s not clean, I better watch out. The point is, you can’t tell.”

Everyone in this class has been busted by the cops for trying to buy sex. If they finish John School, they have the chance to get their arrest records sealed.

The students are in their early 20s to early 60s. There is a guy in a suit and a married couple. None of them look happy to be in this class. They clap meekly, like they’re scared of seeming too excited.

“Thank you very much for your attention, please be safe, and have a good life,” Long says before heading out.

The curriculum

The rest of John School is a roughly eight-hour crash course on manhood, objectification, and sex trafficking. Instructors talk about everything from sex addiction to emotional violence to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

A man from Sex Addicts Anonymous talks about grappling with sex addiction. A psychologist talks about working with clients who have been exploited in the sex trade. An instructor with a violence prevention group uses the term “thingified” to refer to the act of being objectified.

One man in the program, whom we’re calling Malcolm, is practically a star student as far as John School goes. He seems eager to take this class and raises his hand to answer almost every question.

Malcolm was caught by an undercover cop during a sting online. He says he was working 80-plus hours a week. And, Malcolm says, buying sex seemed like a quick way to reward himself and find some release.

“When you don’t do anything for yourself, you get brain dead inside, and you have all these other issues that make you not think properly anymore,” Malcolm says.

After he was arrested, Malcolm learned he could get his record sealed if he attended John School. He was so grateful that he even assigned himself homework before the class. He listened to TED Talks on sexual exploitation and read up on human trafficking.

“I made a mistake, and that mistake could’ve cost me a lot,” Malcolm says. It’s really important to make sure I take it very seriously.”

The beginning of John School

John School started in 1995. It was the beginning of the dot-com bubble. Wealthy residents were flocking to San Francisco, and some of them demanded that police confront the sex workers strolling down street corners. Jails became packed with people arrested for selling sex.

Terri Jackson was the Assistant District Attorney for the city at the time. She remembers sitting in her office one day, flipping through arrest records of people charged with offenses related to prostitution.

“I was looking at the people who were being charged. They were all women,” Jackson remembers. “They were young girls. But never the Johns, as we used to call them. Never the people who were exploiting these people.”

Soon after that, a cop and a former sex worker walked into her office. It sounds like the setup for a bad joke, but they were serious. The former sex worker, a woman named Norma Hotaling, shared her story. By this point, Hotaling was a nationally recognized expert, speaking for people who had been sexually exploited.

Hotaling told Terri that when while working as a prostitute, she had been arrested dozens of times. The cop also said he was tired of that same revolving door.

“They were talking about how we can make a dent,” Jackson says.” Maybe a small dent in ending the cycle of exploitation, and dealing with the people who are promoting it, enabling it, encouraging it. And that’s getting to the people who are profiting off of the sex trade.”

Jackson told them she was on board. Not long after that, John School began. Jackson remembers how John School captured headlines around the world.

“We were interviewed by Oprah, we were in ‘Good Housing.’ We were on ‘Heraldo.’People came from all over the country to talk to us about this program,” Jackson remembers.

She says Hotaling was one of the first people she heard speaking openly about sex trafficking. “She dispelled that image of ‘Pretty Woman,’” Jackson says. “To this day, I can’t watch that movie. It glamorizes something that is not glamorous.”

The data and the skeptics

Now there are John Schools in dozens of cities around the country. In 2008, the National Institute of Justice released a study on San Francisco’s John School. It showed that people who attended were at least 30 percent less likely to be re-arrested for soliciting a prostitute.

“Will I say that it ended sex trafficking in San Francisco? By no stretch of the imagination,” Jackson says. “My grandma always told me, ‘just make an impact. And that little impact can cause other things to happen.’”

But some researchers are still skeptical about programs like John School.

Samantha Majic, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, attended San Francisco’s First Offender Prostitution program. She wrote about it in an article titled “Teaching Equality? ‘John Schools,’ Gender, and Institutional Reform.”

“The program’s enrollment practices and most of its content imply that men who purchase sexual services are rational sexual agents, while women who sell these services are (mainly) victims,” Majic writes. "The program implied that while men can make better decisions for themselves, women must be saved."

John School leaves out any of the national debate around whether sex work should be decriminalized, or whether it’s possible for sex workers to choose to be in the industry. The program is designed to teach men that buying sex is inherently exploitative.

The former prostitute

Back at John School, Sylvia Perry introduces herself as a former prostitute. She encourages the johns in the room to loosen up. She wants everyone to know she’s not here to shame them.

“Can everybody jump up?” Perry says. “You’ve got to jiggle the liver once in a while.”

Perry talks about growing up all over the Bay Area with a dad who was stoned most of the time, and who hit on her friends and would tape porn to the refrigerator.

“In my earliest memory, I was rewarded for dressing and acting sexy. I think I even did that today just to get your attention,” Perry says with a laugh.

As an adult, Perry worked at massage parlors. She felt sexualized every moment of her life and she hated it.

“It got to the point where after every session, I would go into the bathroom and chant, ‘I’ve got to get out of this,’” Perry says.

It’s clear Sylvia has been through a lot of trauma. But not everything she says is backed by science, like when she explains how male and female brains are different are different. 

“Have you ever noticed that if you ask a man how they are, they’re like, ‘Great’”, Sylvia says. “If you ask a woman how they are, they say, ‘Oh, I have my period, it’s raining outside, my car doesn’t work.’ You know, that thing.”

The class stays silent, listening intensely for most of Perry’s lecture.

After the talk is over, she hands me a sticker that says “Boycott Porn and Prostitution.” Not all people in the sex trade would agree with that sentiment. But for Sylvia, sex work was exploitative and degrading. And she says John School creates a space for people to at least consider her perspective.

People don’t know what prostitution really is, the unglamorous version of it,” Perry says. “But that’s my take on it through the filters of my life.”

Since John School began, there have been national movements to end the demand for paid sex. But because the demand hasn’t gone away, John School is never short of students. In fact, the next John School class will take place next month. A dozen or so people will once again file into the Hall of Justice for a lesson on the sex trade they probably won’t hear anywhere else.